watercolor portrait – first paint

yesterday i made some changes after photographing the original drawing. turning the drawing upside down and sideways and having good looks at all the little details, the flow of lines, the overall shapes, i realized that there were lots of places where i didn’t see the line right. so i went over it and corrected great swaths of it.

at first i noticed a lot of internal reluctance, as if i really didn’t want to do it.  but then my mind stopped arguing with me as i started following the shapes.  it’s the not-thinking trick they teach in drawing on the right side of the brain, which is how i learned to draw some 30 years ago, now.  no wait, the book came out in 1979, and it’s 2013 now, so that’s…a billion years.  long time.  anyway, you can’t say you can’t draw until you’ve learned these tricks and still can’t achieve a straight line.

i’ll tell you right now that i can see problems with the drawing, even looking at it as i type.  the top kid’s head is too big, for one thing.  (that script is a phone message.  i’ll erase it later).  and tho i sat for several hours working on the escher part (the background), my perspective sucks and the lines seem horribly unconvincing.  and we all know that a bad drawing makes a bad painting, so i’m going to have to go in and erase lots and lots of it.  the stairs are wrong, and the perspective line on the rolly things coming at the girls is also way off.

i’ll fix these things after i paint in the girls.  because i just can’t wait when it comes to painting.  i always do this, too, always start in without having perfected the drawing, and then get too enthusiastic about splashing paint around to bother with the niggly little bits i told myself i’d have to do in order to make it come out right.  oh well.  so i’m just going to have to live with it.  no, hahaha, my brother will.

and i’ll say another thing, it’s a good thing, and no accident, that i chose a picture that shows their backs.  i can get gestures just fine, even at a very small scale (under an inch), but i can’t do faces.  which is too bad, because at the same time i’m doing this painting, i’m also working on one of my uncle, and that’s a straight on portrait, and they NEVER look like who they are.  in my case, all the portraits i paint make the people look dead.  which isn’t good, especially when they actually are dead.



as i scroll down past the photo, i notice that i was in the middle of redrawing the crawly thing next to the girls, and haven’t finished indicating it.  and that’s fine, because all that’s getting erased and redrawn once i finish the girls.


here is my setup.  i’m not working in my normal studio, because the light’s not great and the studio isn’t set up for watercolor, but encaustic and oil, so i brought it all up to the living room to work.  and here is my palette, which since i make all my own watercolors at this point contains all sorts of colors i don’t have any more of, but that i can’t bear to throw away, and my sister doesn’t really want (i don’t want to hear it).  to the right is my coffee, not my paint water (a vital difference).  to the right of that is the reference photo of the girls going up the stairs.  underneath that is a gingerbread cookie (with 10x the amount of spices called for in the recipe).  next to it is my sample paper, with the shapes of the girls drawn in loose color.  then my brush, paint water and pencil, and in the jar with the big nose to the right is the rest of my brush stash, all of them kolinsky sable and russian squirrel from sadly defunct yarka, the dead cheap and amazingly good russian art company (the company is now american and the brushes are made in india).


here’s a closeup of the test sheet.  the one in the middle is still wet, you can see sparkly bits that are reflections.  i did a very loose sketch of the shapes, then wondered if i could use different shades of red instead of blue as the shadows.  i started with the overall mass tone (the top one is red, the bottom one is purple, the middle one is orange), then put in the darker colors in the shadows and the more intense local color, and then added a drop of water in the very light places to move the paint and make it lighter.

i did the middle one last, and you can see that not only is my paint wet (which means that i have put water on the paint in my palette, and it has moistened the paint to the point where it comes up readily into the brush, and spreads out heavily onto the paper.  so what i’m doing here is using the lightest color (the most dilute) to wet the area, and then coming in with stronger (less dilute) color and charging it into the wet area, where it spreads out and blends with the color that’s there already.  but like in the middle one, i get too enthusiastic and end up with thick, opaque splotches that detract from the figure.

in the top one, you can see it work better, with the spreading dark paint on the top, and the drop of water lightening things up on the upper left side.  it’s just right on the bottom one. before the paint on the palette got too moist and i got too enthusiastic.

with a test, that doesn’t matter, but there needs to be more control when i put it on the painting.  and in this case, more control means less water.  i need to wait until some of the water has evaporated off the surface before i go charging colors in, or else i’ll have the top test piece, where the purple just ran right into the whole top half of the area when it was supposed to stay in the right corner.


and here is where i stopped.  i did the top one first, using some quinacridone pinky color, sort of fuscia.  i’m only using very dilute paint on this first layer.  i’m painting very loose, and i’m doing it wet on wet.  using clear water on my smaller (#5) brush, i wet the outline of the girl on top, and then charged dilute pink into it.  then, see that crumpled pink piece of toilet paper above the painting, resting on the test card?  i used that to blot up some of the pink, where the highlights are on the clothing.  blotting can leave a hard edge, or a soft one, depending on how dry the tissue is and how hard you press it.  and i had to go back in several times to reblot when the color seeped back.

after the first one, i switched to my #6 brush (both shown next to the painting), wet the lower kid with clear water, and then got the most orange of my reds (in the middle of the palette on the right, still shining in the picture) and did the same thing, putting down a uniform wash of orange, and then using dropped-in water and pulled out blotting to lighten it where the natural highlights are.

then i wet the middle girl, and put in what looked like red, discovered it to be orange once it got on the paper, and went in after a stronger and more bluish red to counteract it.  then did the same blotting.  i managed to splash a little bit onto the surrounding paper, which might come back to haunt me when i go to finish the background, but we’ll wait on that.  i blotted up most of the marks.

i’m not putting in any shadows at this point.  all i’m doing is putting on the lightest local color and lifting out the highlights.  it’s very loose, only sort of following the interior pencil lines (not the contour lines, the outline must be accurate or the whole thing will look odd).  the idea of the first layers being loose are that you’re going to come in later and put in details that will define the folds and falls of the drapery, and shadows to show the form and dimensionality of it.  but right now all i want to do is indicate where things will go with as much wiggle room as possible.

because i’m going to go in tomorrow and find that i’ve made some lines altogether wrong.  the next step for me is not to start at the contour (outline) and work inwards, but to start in the middle of the form and work out.  this means feeling my way using my not-talking senses to figure out how the lines and forms are, rather than ‘knowing’ where things go and making them fit.


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